For years, timber-dependent counties in Oregon have relied on payments from the federal government. But today the law authorizing those payments, known as The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, expires.
The money comes from shared timber revenue on national public lands. It helps pay for schools, roads and other basic services.
Discussions are under way in Congress about what comes next, but with nothing firm in place, counties are bracing for the worst.
Young children and their parents are waiting to see a clinician at a Childhood Immunization Clinic run by Douglas County. Here, kids can get vaccinated against an array of diseases such as Measles, Mumps, Diphtheria and Tetanus. But in recent years administrators here have cut back on staff and hours.
Douglas County’s Health Administrator Peggy Madison, says now that it looks like timber payments might go away, this year’s cuts have been worse— significantly worse.
“We’ve had three 10 percent cuts over three years in our budget and then a thirty five percent cut this past year. So making those cuts means we’re making cuts in services that people really depend on.”
Besides cuts to hours in the immunization clinics, Madison’s department has also been forced to slash hours at satellite offices in Reedsport, Drain and Canyonville.
Doug Robertson is a Douglas County Commissioner.
“What does it mean when the Secure Rural Schools Act ends? It means that support for county services, to a large extent, certainly in Douglas County also ends.”, says Robertson.
In the past, timber payments have accounted for close to 70 percent of Douglas County’s budget. But with the decline in timber revenue, those payments dwindled, says Robertson.
“We can’t deficit spend so we’ve been cutting as the payments have been diminishing. Over the last three years for instance, Douglas County we have cut slightly over 200 budgeted positions out of our budget.”
Douglas County is preparing to go from receiving close to 20 million dollars last year all the way down to zero. The county’s problems are by no means unique. Representative Peter DeFazio underscored that point during a natural resources subcommittee hearing last week.
Addressing the subcommitee, Defazio said “I’ve just had one county notify the governor of my state, Curry County, that if their initiative on the ballot to increase property taxes fails, and the last one failed by a margin of three-to-one that essentially the county will have to dissolve.”
George Rhodes is a Curry County Commissioner. I ask him, “what does that mean? Dissolve?”
“The Government doesn’t like us to use the term bankrupt.”, he replied. “The reality is, in June of 2013 if we have the same budget that we do this year, the same general fund budget, we would be short of making it by about 300 thousand dollars”.
Rhodes says unlike Douglas County, which has been able to largely preserve funding for public safety, Curry County was forced to lay off one of its five sheriff’s deputies, plus a dispatcher.
He says the county can no longer afford to have two deputies on patrol around the clock.
And then there’s education. Schools, after all, are right there in the expiring law’s name. Rhodes says since 2004 schools in Curry County have received a little over 8 million dollars.
“Well their last payment that’s expected will be about 535 thousand and the next year will be nothing.”, he says.
Members of the Oregon congressional delegation all seem to agree that something has to be done. But what that something is, isn’t yet clear.
In the House, a bill is circulating in draft form that would allow for more logging on National Forest Land and for sidestepping of environmental regulation.
In the Senate, a different approach appears to be forming. Many there have advocated for a re-authorization of county payments. But it’s not clear how such a plan might be paid for. In the meantime, Oregon counties are hunkering down and preparing for what might be a worst-case scenario…gridlock. The last of the timber payments goes out this winter.